Monday, May 23, 2011

Into The Wild Reviews: Gamera Guardian Of The Universe (1995)

"Sometimes you gotta fight for your right to have a monster!"  - Tori Amos

Upon first venturing this blog as an extension of the wall of busy that I often find myself chasing regularly, one of the prime inspirations was that of my love of not only reviewing the kinds of movies and media that pique the curiosity, but also of favorites from years past. Which leads to the site's namesake which hopefully aptly describes the often scattershot focus of material covered, as well as my adoration for old Japanese genre works which played almost ritualistically in the family home as a child. This upcoming review, while of a film reboot made over sixteen years ago, helps represent a major shift in not only how I enjoyed this style of work, but of how I looked at it in a broader context. As often as some may gripe about my giving giant monster movies a pass, while megadollar Disney revisions a brutal shaft, it's important to consider the mighty word..intent..

                                  Hard to believe it's been sixteen years since the theatrical re-interpretation of Daiei's rocket powered, hard-shelled answer to the big G hit Japanese screens with a more than welcome reception, and granted the classic kaiju feature a spectacular new visual arsenal. Combining the sure-handed direction of former Nikkatsu director, Shusuke Kaneko (later known for his films based upon the popular Death Note manga series), alongside former Gainax luminary & storyboard mastermind, Shinji Higuchi, and featuring script by Mamoru Oshii stalwart, Kazunori Ito, this version of the often laughable Gamera franchise that started in the wake of a Gojira-taming period in the 1960s, is a much more serious, kinetic affair that gives the origin of the legendary "Friend To All Children" a refreshing spin.

Beginning somewhere south of Japan, near the Philippines, a trawler carrying a hidden cache of plutonium runs into what is initially assumed to be a strange, "moving" atoll. Upon closer inspection, the so-called mini-island hosts dozens upon dozens of metallic mitama-shaped objects that are naturally collected, until crew members run across a stone slab covered in archaic writing inscribed into it. But after a few pictures are taken, and before further analysis could be made, a tremor hits the atoll, destroying the slab and throwing crew members into the ocean where one of them for a brief moment sees the terrifying vision of this questionable island...staring right back at them.

As this bizarre discovery unfolds, other nearby islands are experiencing attacks by what some are calling giant birds. The discovery enlists the expertise of scientist Mayumi Nagamine (Shinobu Nakayama of Fist Of Legend & Rakutenshi fame) with the assistance of bumbling inspector Osako (Yukijiro Hotaru), to which they help piece together the mystery that these two grand scale events are (surprise!) directly co-related. Soon, both investigating parties convene, while one of the investigators hands one of the many found mitama-amulets from earlier to the daughter of head sleuth, Kusanagi. And it is here, that the connection between child and you-know-who comes into play. And not a moment too soon as the flying enemy (behold, the return of fan favorite, Gyaos!) is on the advance(and possibly growing in number), and no military force seems capable of stopping them!

Not if this shellfull of turtle-meated badassedness has anything to say about it.

And that's pretty much the plot of this initial entry, which pretty much sticks to the formula of many a kaiju favorite. But what Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe lacks in terms of story nuance, it more than makes up for in sheer energy, and visual punch. Even as a costumed actors-in-suits rolling around detailed miniatures are concerned, the craft, cinematography, and editing congeal in ways that the Heisei Gojira films just weren't delivering at the time. There is a gravity and energy to the monster battles in this piece that while still scream toy set disaster time at the playpen, there is also a true feeling of enthusiasm for the work that truly goes a long way for films of this ilk. There is even a "humans attempt large scale plan to save Tokyo" sequence that works to nice effect. And while the Gyaos closeup effects resemble little more than done-up hand puppets at times, the articulation is much more versatile than its previous appearance in Gamera Vs. Gyaos in 1967. We even have a spirited take on the "attack the local train line" scene, which works.There are even some aerial battles here that are pretty reminiscent of indelible images from the classic Gainax anime, Shin Seiki Evangelion. And possibly the biggest standout image of them all is of a Gyaos perched into a nest-like crater made out of the Tokyo Tower as the sun grants us a startling visage.

Of the new decisions made to this rendition of the monsters, the concept that Gamera was in fact created to counter the advance of the also human-made Gyaos hordes is an interesting switch to the admittedly throwaway ancient god idea of the original. Adding a dose of ecological message not only granted Gamera a timeliness closer in tone to the original Gojira, but it also plants humanity square in the moral quagmire, as Gyaos was initially designed to cleanse the Earth from polluting forces. It makes Gamera on one hand our guardian, but it also makes the viewer wonder to which extent does this trust stretch. The implication that our bond with the legendary turtle is tentative at best helps set up a new franchise nicely.

And what of the human element in the film? Again, as far as these films tend to go, the humans are rarely given much shrift to work with, and with this one it's no exception. The acting is hammy at best, and awkward at worst. Which for most other films would be the kiss of death. But for this writer, this comes as no real shakes since when one considers it, kaiju, as well as most tokusatsu films are known for stilted acting, and occasional screen mugging (the classic "gasp" look always comes to mind). In fact, it has become part of the vernacular. When one watches a Kaneko film, or any other piece from the JFX world, it's almost expected. Regardless, the presence of Nakayama & veteran Onodera as Naoya Kusanagi are more than welcome. But even if little is done with the character, the real standout is Ayako Fujitani (Shiki-Jitsu) who's mostly unspoken connection with the heroic creature still carries visual impact. (Could it be the stare? Sidenote: Fujitani is also widely known as the daughter of the one-and-only Steven Segal

Another thing one can't help noticing this go-round is the multiple nods made to other films made around the time of the film's 1995 release. And when one thinks giant reptilian creatures on a rampage, and munching down on anything running on two legs, one can only really consider Jurassic Park(1993) for the expected samples. From the gag-inducing diet-check scene, to even a few snatches of Kou Otani's otherwise excellent score, it's clear that Kaneko & Co. took big notice of Spielberg's CG-drowned monsterfest.

So the first entry into Gamera's Heisei Era remains something of a kaiju classic. And while it still requires quite a bit more seriousness, and power to match that of the Great heavyweight, Gamera: Guardian Of The Universe at sixteen years continues to be a wholly entertaining marriage of FX schools, and genre era. It's cheeky enough for some great laughs, but it also offers some serious bang for monster-loving buck. Of the big G is still the king, then little G is the immovable prince. And with three more movies (including a well-noted "fan film", and a more recent "inspired"-style piece.) it was clear that this Testudine icon still bore some fire within.

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